Review by Stephen Platten
Late on in his life I was fortunate enough to count Peter Bide as a friend. It was Bide who, completely out of sync with the ecclesiastical law at the time, solemnized the marriage (with a nuptial Mass) of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman; they had already taken part in a civil marriage ceremony. This living link made Alister McGrath’s remarkable biography still more compelling for me.
McGrath draws a vivid and critically authentic picture of this master of Christian apologetic and author of both scholarly and imaginative literature. Early on, McGrath focuses on the keyword joy; for Lewis this would become almost an idée fixe throughout his life. In his youth Lewis notes experiences of joy as “transient epiphanies.” In his teenage years, however, his Christian belief fades, aided and abetted by William Kirkpatrick, whom Lewis’s father had hired as a tutor to his younger son.
By Alister McGrath. Tyndale House.
Pp. xvi + 431. $24.99
McGrath shows how Lewis ignores at least two of the great political crises of his childhood and youth. His obsessive criticism of his time at preparatory school and then at Marlborough College virtually obliterates any reference to the Irish “troubles” and the Great War. The outbreak of war in 1914 interrupted Lewis’s time at University College, Oxford, and he was injured and invalided out of the conflict. Lewis almost never mentions these severe political crises in his writings, although McGrath suggests that subconsciously Lewis’s experiences in the Great War may have contributed to his later gradual conversion back to Christian belief.
McGrath handles with sensitivity the increasingly appalling relationship that Lewis allowed to develop with his father. Similarly, and without prurience, he adverts to the long and unusual relationship with Mrs. (Janie) Moore. All of these factors influenced the complex personality of Jack Lewis, as his friends knew him. With this in the background, Lewis returned to Oxford gaining a first in Mods and Greats (classics) at Oxford and then a further first in English Language and Literature. His professional career was not meteoric and his desire to become a poet was thwarted despite his early enthusiasm for this literary form.
In his late 20s there was a clear sign in Lewis’s consciousness that God was seeking him out. McGrath sees this as a complex process and he redraws the conventionally accepted chronology of the conversion. It began with a search for the rationality behind belief, but as McGrath indicates it was not until imagination combined with reason that Lewis’s conversion was complete. Literature was a key part in the process, as was Lewis’s growing friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien; Lewis acted as a midwife to Tolkien’s creativity in his writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A late-night walk with Hugo Dyson and Tolkien helped link together reason and imagination in Lewis’s coming to Christian belief.
The 1930s marked the publication of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis’s account of his journey back to belief, loosely based on Bunyan’s great work. Also in 1936, Lewis published his first major work in his own professional discipline of English literature, The Allegory of Love. It was, however, with the outbreak of World War II that Lewis would spring onto the national and international scene with his apologetic thought. This began with the publication of The Problem of Pain and then with his broadcast talks on BBC radio. Later came The Screwtape Letters and then Out of the Silent Planet, the first of his science fiction series. Colleagues and commentators were envious and critical of his populist approach.
Though his popularity in the United States ran ahead of that in his home country, a wider popularity did eventually emerge as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its sequels appeared. Here both imaginative and apologetic literature converged. Lewis was keen to argue that this was imaginative writing and not imaginary. It offered another way for people to understand reality. This also helped Lewis further investigate the interaction of internal and external worlds, picking up Platonic resonances.
Later on, Lewis’s scholarly ability was finally recognized with his appointment to a newly founded chair at Cambridge. It was during this period that he met and married Davidman. The civil marriage he saw as a matter of chivalrous generosity, keeping her in England as she educated her sons. It was her terminal illness that helped him see a deeper side and real love in the relationship. Her death led to one of his most remarkable writings, A Grief Observed, in 1960, just three years before his death.
Lewis’s influence has not waned, as McGrath shows. Instead it has deepened and widened amongst a great variety of groups and cultures, notably in North America. This book is masterly in its research and a delight to read. It provides an amazing chronology of the comings and goings of joy at the deepest level.
The Rt. Rev. Stephen Platten is Bishop of Wakefield.